Where exactly do you find a six-foot-plus, hirsute male dancer who is as adept at performing pas de bourré across the stage on pointe shoes as he is at pratfalls? This is the burning question as the Straight reaches Tory Dobrin, the artistic director of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, in its home of New York City (despite the precious French name), where the tutu-clad, all-male troupe is preparing for its first visit here in 30 years.
These days, though, it turns out recruiting men who can pirouette in the pink slippers is really no challenge at all. “We don’t find them. They find us,” Dobrin says matter-of-factly. He admits that’s a huge change from the 1980s, when he danced for the troupe.
“In my day, no one had ever put on pointe shoes,” he recalls, explaining Trockadero had to train the male dancers it recruited. “That continued till about 2005, when the dancers started coming in very comfortable with it. When I joined, there were only two teachers in New York City that would even allow you to take pointe-shoe classes. Now it’s considered a career choice. Times have changed in a lot of ways.”
That’s putting it mildly. The 40-year-old Ballets Trockadero has lived through gay liberation, the AIDS crisis, and ever-opening attitudes to the sight of men in drag. These days, Dobrin says, the level of dancing at the troupe is at its highest ever, as it parodies Paquita and satirizes Swan Lake, revelling in the exaggerated, Russian style of ballet. Word has it that the grand jetés of the Trocks (as they are lovingly known) have never been higher. The New York Times recently praised their technical standards and gentle comedy, adding, “more essentially, they are aficionados of their art”: “The Trockadero sensibility comes down to its witty individual dancers, who know that a ballet joke can be delivered only with actual dancing chops.”
From his inside view, Dobrin also sees another reason for the high standards of the dancing: good old-fashioned rivalry. “Male dancers tend to be very competitive,” he says. “In the ballet class there’s this sort of healthy competition going on: who can jump higher and who can get their leg higher?” Those morning classes, with a Russian teacher, are about the only serious time of the day for the Trocks, he adds; most of it is just pure fun.
As for the humour in the shows, it comes from carefully placed jabs, from the over-the-top, Russianized noms de ballet the guys choose to the on-stage death throes of a feather-moulting “Dying Swan” and the handsome young officer hurting his shoulder lifting his muscular mate in Paquita. An arabesque might take out a corps member with the force of a hit from a linebacker; a little swan in a row might become too excited to hold her perfect place in line. “The better the dancing became, the more varied the humour became—it could be more extreme or more subtle, depending on the piece, which helped with the overall program, because the audience was seeing something that had more depth,” Dobrin explains of the evolution of the company. “And now we have a younger generation [of dancers] with a different kind of humour.”
That comedy tends to emerge after the serious work of learning the ballet steps has finished. The best silly moments come in the studio, Dobrin says, when the guys are getting tired and punchy after working for hours and hours. “That’s definitely something we want to foster,” he deadpans.
What’s perhaps most interesting about Les Ballets Trockadero, and has probably contributed to its amazing longevity, is that the shows can be enjoyed on so many levels. This is no one-joke company. There are the subtler and broader hits of comedy and the technical prowess to enjoy, but an intellectual level emerges, as well—that deep knowledge and appreciation of the classic Russian style. Dobrin is set to see the Kirov Ballet in a week, and he and his team regularly check out Russian companies and pore over old film and videos of classic works. It’s heavy research, but Dobrin seems loath to focus on that aspect of Les Ballets Trockadero too much. Instead, he wants to emphasize the sheer entertainment value of the tulle-happy package they have put together.
“A lot of times we feel like we’re not really understood,” he allows. “If you go see the Russian ballets they are still very entertaining and it should be entertaining. There’s big characters and over-the-top personalities.” And in the Trocks’ case, a few toes that get stepped on, too.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday (January 24).